Gov. Chris Christie insists that if the underfunded public worker pension system isn’t reformed it will mean huge tax hikes or a permanently busted budget. The president of the State Police Benevolent Association calls that a scare tactic that’s not based on fact. He says the pension system for law enforcement officers and firefighters is healthy, structurally sound and 100 percent funded by employers and employees alike. Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams how full pension funding is possible for firefighters and police officers.
Colligan claims that the police and firefighters retirement system doesn’t belong in the larger discussion of pension funding in New Jersey. He says that there are five distinct funds in the state, including one for police and firefighters, which has the highest funding rate of any of them. “Our funding rate is 76, 77, 78 percent so our funding level actuarially is very strong,” he said.
Funding for police and firefigher pensions is different than other state worker pension systems. While the state is unable to make pension payments, local municipalities have been contributing to police and fire pensions.
“The funding is different because the state is not making contributions for the state employees, but on the local side, local employers, county employers, the counties and the towns are making the contributions. They’re making 100 percent of their contributions and they have for years now. We’re certainly making 100 percent of our contributions and we have been since the pension system started. We have no state funding except for some of our state employees on the police side, we have state corrections, state park police, things like that but that’s even manageable and once we get portions we’ll get that back up,” Colligan said.
Colligan has said in the past that Christie used increases in contributions to police and firefighter pensions to offset other gaps in the state budget. “Part of Chapter 78 is our portion is going from 8.5 to 10 percent. Some guys did [have issues], but we had no problem with it because it was going to go back into our system and then we come to find out six to 10 months in that that money is actually being rebated back to the towns and isn’t going into our pension system where it belongs,” he said.
He also contends that there was no trust lost between the governor and the police and firefighter unions because he never made an effort to establish a relationship when he became governor. “I think if he had sat down with us and see that we’re very realistic in funding and the ideas that we have to keep our pensions sound, I think he would have been surprised at how open we are to making some changes and doing some things that are thinking outside the box a little bit,” Colligan said.
So what needs to be done to make sure that the fund is sound? Colligan says we need to look at the whole fund — and there are issues. “Teachers have a major issue coming in 10 or 12 years. The state employees do. But on the police and fire side, if you look at it separately, as you should be because they actuarially separate it, we are a very sound and healthy system that goes out decades before we see any issues financially,” he said.
Ultimately, Colligan says that it’s unlikely the police or fire unions are ever going to have an issue with the state in terms of funding thanks to local cities and towns making good on their payments.
“On the police and fire pension, we get such a small percentage from the state just for those state employees. About 50 firefighters, 5,000 to 6,000 state corrections officers and park police, human services police, but that’s manageable,” he said. “We even have a plan to get them into full funding. So it’s all manageable as long as you separate us out.”
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